Daryl Morey’s 13-year tenure as general manager of the Houston Rockets ended the way most things end: badly. The Rockets bowed out of the 2020 playoffs in the second round, falling to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in a gentleman’s sweep that didn’t feel all that close, with each of their final three losses coming by double digits.
The next day, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni informed the team that he would not seek a contract renewal and would instead enter the free-agent market. A month and two days later, Morey himself stepped down from his post — even after Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta had previously said the GM’s job was “safe.”
Though the end was ugly, there were many successes on the journey. The Rockets posted the second-best record in the NBA during Morey’s tenure, winning 61.5 percent of their regular-season games. They made 10 playoff appearances and two trips to the conference finals, scoring the eighth-most playoff wins (51) of any team in the league along the way. They consistently pushed the league forward with innovations on the floor. They shattered records (several times over) for 3-pointers made and attempted, revolutionizing what it meant to be an efficient NBA offense.
But there were also distinct disappointments. Houston was one of just two teams with 50-plus playoff victories during Morey’s tenure that did not also win a championship. The Rockets of recent vintage went all-out to defeat the Golden State Warriors but fell short in two series — once when Chris Paul injured his hamstring and missed the final two games and once despite Kevin Durant suffering a calf injury and sitting out the clincher.
Morey is most famous, though, for his role as a pioneer in the basketball analytics movement. Morey’s adherence to the math behind basketball shone through most notably in the team’s shot selection (which consisted almost exclusively of 3-pointers and attempts in the immediate area around the rim), but it also extended outside the confines of the hardwood and into the executive suite. Morey firmly believed that a team needs multiple star players to truly contend for a championship, and he relentlessly pursued that structure throughout his tenure.
“People say, ‘They’ll do and trade anything,’” Morey once told the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram. “Yeah, we will. Until you have your foundational players, your franchise should be in a state of flux. You need to keep trading and moving players until you get to that point.”
When he said that, he really meant it. In 13 seasons as general manager, Morey completed a whopping 77 trades. Only one NBA team — the Philadelphia 76ers, who at one point were helmed by Morey’s protégé, Sam Hinkie — made more swaps during that time.
In those deals, Morey acquired 27 draft picks and sent 37 out the door. He brought in 70 players and sent 72 packing — including 30 players that made it on both of those lists.
He traded and/or acquired the rights to Ukrainian guard Sergei Lishouk five times. He traded cash for a draft pick that was eventually used on Australian forward Brad Newley (who never played in the NBA), then traded Newley’s rights a full decade later. He made three different deals involving the draft pick that became Chandler Parsons, including two on the same day. He executed quite possibly the funniest trade in NBA history, sending Patrick Ewing Jr. to the New York Knicks in exchange for the rights to Frédéric Weis.
But was all the moving and shaking worth it? Did Morey’s wheeling and dealing actually add value to the team? Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes, a whole lot.
Most crucially, each of the five pieces Morey packaged together to acquire James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, the Nos. 12 and 32 overall picks in 2012 and a top-20 protected pick in 2014) was acquired in a previous trade. Just that, right there, made everything worth it. But Morey added value beyond the Harden deal.
How much value? We’re glad you asked, because we actually can quantify it. To do so, we turned to Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). For each of Morey’s trades, we tabulated the following:
- The VORP produced during the remainder of that specific tenure with the Rockets by players the Rockets acquired and the VORP produced during the remainder of their tenure with the specific team to which the Rockets traded them by players the Rockets traded away.
- The VORP produced during their tenure with the Rockets by any player whose draft rights the Rockets acquired and the VORP produced during their tenure with the specific team to which the Rockets traded them by any players whose draft rights the Rockets traded away.
- The projected VORP of all future draft picks traded to the Rockets and the projected VORP of all future draft picks traded away by the Rockets.
Take Morey’s first significant trade: In 2007, the Rockets sent the draft rights to Vassilis Spanoulis to the San Antonio Spurs along with a 2009 second-round pick and cash in exchange for Jackie Butler and the draft rights to Luis Scola.
Spanoulis never played in the NBA and thus never produced any VORP. The 2009 second-round pick eventually landed at No. 53, which we could project would be worth just over 0.1 VORP. Butler never actually played a game with the Rockets because he was waived at the end of training camp, but Scola stayed in Houston for five seasons and produced 4.7 VORP during his tenure. Subtract 0.1 (No. 53 pick) from 4.7 (Scola), and Morey added 4.6 VORP for the Rockets with the deal.
There were some other true gems along the way: a 2009 three-team trade in which the Rockets sent Rafer Alston to Orlando and acquired Magic forward Brian Cook and Grizzlies guard Kyle Lowry (plus-5.7 VORP); a 2010 three-team deal with the Knicks and Kings in which Houston acquired Kevin Martin, Hilton Armstrong, Jordan Hill, Jared Jeffries, the right to swap 2011 first-round picks with New York and a protected future first-round pick in exchange for Tracy McGrady, Carl Landry, Joey Dorsey and cash (plus-5.4); and a 2011 trade of Aaron Brooks to the Suns for Goran Dragić and a future first-round pick (plus-3.4).
There were also some clunkers. The 2012 swap that sent Lowry to the Raptors for guard Gary Forbes and a protected first-round pick comes to mind (minus-27.5 VORP). So does the 2008 draft-day deal that saw the Rockets acquire the rights to Donté Greene and Dorsey, plus a 2009 second-round pick, in exchange for the rights to Nicolas Batum (minus-15.9).
Perform the same calculation for each of Morey’s trades, though, and the Rockets came out ahead by 34.8 VORP. Think of it this way: In his 13-year tenure as Rockets GM, Morey added almost the same value over replacement player via trade that Lowry did on the court (35.5).
The significant majority of the value Morey generated via trade came in the Harden deal. To date, Harden has produced 58.2 VORP for the Rockets. Martin produced 1.6 VORP during his time in OKC, and Lamb produced 1.3. The Nos. 12, 32 and 24 picks could be projected for around 4.8 VORP, meaning the Rockets have so far won this trade by 50.3 VORP. That’s just about as good as it gets. It’s a career-making trade.
Morey’s efforts to secure Harden a second star, though, were largely less successful. The first and arguably worst attempt was the signing of Dwight Howard. Howard bristled at a perceived lack of touches, his back injuries accelerated his physical decline, and his personality clashes with Harden accelerated his ignominious exit from Houston.
The Rockets thought they had a Chris Bosh signing lined up in 2014 and traded away a future first-round pick to offload Jeremy Lin’s contract and open up the necessary cap space, but Bosh elected to stay with the Heat at the last minute. Bosh’s spurning Houston meant the Rockets played three more seasons before finding Harden a proper second star: Chris Paul.
That deal worked about as well as could be expected for Houston on the floor: The 2017-18 and 2018-19 Rockets are two of the 14 most efficient offenses in NBA history, and the team made the conference finals in 2018. But it was actually a loser by VORP (minus-9.8 and counting) because three of the pieces Morey sent to the Clippers became key rotation pieces in L.A.: Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams.
And Paul’s reported falling-out with Harden motivated the Rockets to ship him out last year, dumping his contract on the Thunder for the even-more-onerous contract of Russell Westbrook and sacrificing two future first-round picks (2024 and 2026) and two pick swaps (2021 and 2025) just to do it. Paul then outplayed Westbrook in the players’ first seasons with their new teams, and now that Morey will no longer be in charge of building the Rockets’ future, it’s entirely possible that the picks he traded will end up being more valuable than he projected they’d be when he sent them to Oklahoma City.
In the end, Morey’s tenure as general manager largely followed the trajectory of the Rockets as a franchise, which isn’t all that surprising. He spent years meticulously accumulating assets without ever bottoming out, hoping against hope that he could eventually pounce on a chance for the type of superstar who could lead the team to championship contention.
He eventually found the right player at the right price, and he hit his shot so far out of the park that it might actually have been attached to a rocket. He then nailed moves for supporting players, like trading for Trevor Ariza in 2014 (plus-9.9 VORP); drafting Clint Capela and elevating him to the starting lineup after letting Howard walk; rebounding from being rebuffed by Andre Iguodala by signing P.J. Tucker in 2017; and signing quality role players like Luc Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green, Nenê, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore and Danuel House (for the last one, bubble indiscretions notwithstanding).
But the big post-Harden moves didn’t quite work out — or at least, they didn’t achieve the desired result. Howard was a bad fit. Bosh changed his mind. Ryan Anderson had a couple of great shooting seasons but eventually became unplayable on defense. Eric Gordon had three years of good health before his body failed him again this season. Paul and Harden couldn’t get over the hump. Westbrook got injured, tested positive for COVID-19 and wasn’t himself in the bubble.
Now, Morey has moved on. Eventually, the Rockets will as well. They’ll hire a new GM, find a new coach, swap out some players, send draft picks flying around the league — all in an effort to climb the mountaintop for the first time since 1995. But for the first time in more than a decade, they won’t have one of the league’s most prolific dealmakers calling the shots.
Neil Paine contributed research.